Warning: Violence, May be Controversial
I write suspense and therefore my books contain killing. And sometimes, I get scolded by readers for too much killing. Too much violence.
Honestly, this bothers me.
It doesn’t bother me so much that the reader points it out, I’d expect nothing less. It bothers me that they’re offended, because I take great pains to not go overboard in describing murder and death.
It’s a fine line to walk and for Christian authors and often a controversial one.
First, let me explain my view of how I handle violence in fiction and then I want to talk about a couple other views that are out there.
One, all death should serve a purpose. I know that sounds really cold but remember folks, this is fiction. I’m telling a story, setting the stage, developing characters for you to love, hate, empathize with, whatever. Everything should serve a purpose, including the killing.
Two, my opinion is that murder and death should only be described with enough detail that the reader gets the idea and can understand what’s going on. A popular mantra in fiction writing is to “show, don’t tell.” But with violence (like with horror) often times what’s not shown is just as effective, if not more effective, than what is shown. I want to describe the scene enough so the reader understands the gravity of the situation, the brutality, the evil, but not describe it in such detail that it turns off the reader. Violence should never be described in such a way that it detracts from the story as a whole. We’re not out to shock readers, just move them.
Three, I need to be careful when I write scenes with violence. As an author I act out that scene in my head as I’m writing it. That means I’m going places in my mind that make me uncomfortable and are potentially dangerous. I need to practice caution and not dwell too deeply on the evil involved with most violence.
Now, time to get myself in hot water . . .
There are two arguments out there I hear most often in favor of showing violence in all its bloody and gory detail that I’d like to address. But first, a disclaimer: what follows is my opinion and my position. I may be wrong, I may be right. It’s my opinion. I don’t intend to belittle anyone or point any fingers. And I’m ready for comments and positions against my opinion.
The first argument is that readers need to be shown evil in all its ugly glory so they will know the extent to which evil can destroy and maim and disfigure. My response is that people know evil is out there, they saw what happened on 9/11. They’ve seen or at least heard about the terrorist beheadings, serial killers, mothers who drown their children, husbands who beat their wives senseless, the holocaust, the tortures, the experiments, abortion. They’ve seen it in movies, video games, on the news. We’ve been that desensitized as a culture. And besides, if that’s the argument then why stop at murder and such, why not include rape? Incest? Other sexual crimes? Isn’t that showing the reader how depraved evil really is as well?
The next argument is that it’s okay to describe violence in gratuitous detail because the Bible has many acts of violence in it. In my opinion, this argument is bunk. Yes, the Bible contains violence. Murder, dismemberment, rape, warring, looting, and much more. But it doesn’t describe the details. It handles it properly, giving the reader enough information to understand what has transpired but not too much.
For instance, in Judges 4, Jael drives a stake through Sisera’s head while he’s sleeping, nailing his skull to the ground. The Bible describes it this way: But Heber’s wife Jael picked up a tent stake and a hammer. She went quietly over to Sisera. He was lying there, fast asleep. He was very tired. She drove the stake through his head right into the ground. So he died. So what do you think? Is that gratuitous? I don’t think so. There’s no description of the sound of the stake puncturing his skull; no description of blood and brain matter, of the spasms his body no doubt underwent. His last gasp for air. It’s handled very modestly.
Here’s another example. In 2 Kings 9 Jezebel is murdered. This one is gruesome even by biblical standards. It’s described this way: When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it, and she painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out the window. As Jehu entered the gate, she said, “Is it well, Zimri, your master’s murderer?” Then he lifted up his face to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” And two or three officials looked down at him. He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down, and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall and on the horses, and he trampled her under foot. When he came in, he ate and drank; and he said, “See now to this cursed woman and bury her, for she is a king’s daughter.” They went to bury her, but they found nothing more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. Therefore they returned and told him. And he said, “This is the word of the Lord, which He spoke by His servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘In the property of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; and the corpse of Jezebel will be as dung on the face of the field in the property of Jezreel, so they cannot say, “This is Jezebel.” Here we have some blood, a woman being trampled. But oddly there’s no description of what was left of her other than it being the skull, hands, and feet. No description of her body hitting the ground, her screams, the sound of bones breaking as she is trampled. No description of dogs eating her entrails and so on. It’s all handled very discreetly.
The Bible is known for giving an accurate, unabashed play-by-play of events as they unfolded, but it rarely offers color commentary describing what happened.
So how much description is too much or how little is not enough? Well, that’s the million dollar question isn’t it?
So, there you have it. Let the comments begin. Agree with me, make your own arguments, state your own opinions. I’m not saying I do it right all the time in my own writing. Sometimes I go back and read through one of my books and wish I hadn’t described things or acts or people in certain ways. There’s always regrets and second-guessing. But we learn and hopefully we put what we learn into practice.
Posted on June 6, 2013, in Christian Fiction, Writing craft and tagged Bible, Jezebel, Murder, Sisera, Violence, violence in fiction, Writing craft, Writing fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.